In most situations, you could never ask for a better neighbor than a Kansas farmer.
That has been borne out in times of family stress when neighbors show up to help rebuild a barn, replace fences wiped out by wildfire or harvest a crop. I can't even count how many stories of good will and good deeds I have written in the last three decades of writing about Kansas agriculture.
When it comes to taking action to prevent a disaster from striking a neighboring farmer, however, there is one place, I am sorry to say, where some people have fallen short in the good neighbor department: the destruction of volunteer wheat in the summer and fall after harvest.
For many, it may seem like the volunteer wheat that springs up in wheat stubble is simply free cattle feed — an opportunity to gain a little forage in tough times of low commodity prices. And it may be just that for the farmer letting it grow.
For his neighbor, who has a field of carefully planted and fertilized wheat, that field of volunteer is the reservoir of a pest called the wheat curl mite — a nasty little bug that provides the vector for a viral disease known as wheat streak mosaic.
Last fall, a relatively wet summer and early fall made for plentiful crops of volunteer wheat — and plentiful supplies of the mites, which invaded neighboring fields in big numbers. The result was a fall infestation serious enough that some fields were dead before most wheat went dormant for the winter. A warm winter has kept the critters around, and all across western Kansas fields are turning yellow with wheat streak mosaic.
There is no cure for this yield robber; it just continues to take its toll until harvest, cutting yields in some fields by as much as 100%, with a 50% loss being common.
Lane County farmer Vance Ehmke has fields of certified wheat seed infected with the viral disease. Many neighboring fields also show signs of the disease from the early curling of leaf edges to the characteristic streaks of yellow.
"Wheat streak mosaic can look a lot like stripe rust at first glance," says K-State plant pathologist Erick DeWolf. "But the disease is a lot more serious because whereas stripe rust can be well-controlled with the application of a fungicide, the viral disease of wheat streak mosaic has no known treatment.”
Most wheat growers are quick to destroy volunteer wheat in their own fields and protect themselves against the curl mite. However, some of their neighbors don't do that for whatever reason. DeWolf said volunteer wheat is not a noxious weed, so counties cannot destroy it and bill the landowner.
For some, it may be an economic matter; in tough times like farmers are enduring now, the cost of spraying may cause a producer to hesitate.
In the interest of the Kansas wheat industry as a whole, there has to be a way to resolve this problem. Perhaps the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers could declare volunteer wheat a problem that needs to be addressed and set up a mechanism to create a pool of funds to pay local co-ops to spray volunteer fields in their service area as a preventive measure for everyone.
The reality is the cost of destroying volunteer is much, much less than the damage it can do. What's the fair thing to do? Give it some thought. Maybe bring it up at a local co-op board or membership meeting. I think Kansas farmers are smart enough to come up with the answer to this problem. Prove me right.